Tag Archives: philadelphia

The Urgency of Fixing Schools

This week at school, I took a bit of my prep period to introduce myself and get to know one of my 5th graders who just transferred to the school. (Let’s call him Jim.) Born and raised in Philadelphia, he loves playing football, eating hot wings, and riding bikes with his brothers. I was immediately struck by his warmth and ease in conversation, despite being approached by a stranger. At that age, I tended to start counting the dots on floor tiles when adults tried to talk to me.

After a bit of small talk, I asked him about his old school. Exasperation exploded across his face, and he sighed. “That place was crazy. They was always fighting, and teachers never made us do nothing. We used to walk out of class and play in the hall.” His academic progress matched the school description: the baseline one-on-one reading test administered to him when he arrived at our school showed that he reads at a mid-1st grade level. In other words, after only 5 years of attending school he is 3.5 years behind, a chasm that statistics show is rarely closed.

I’ll put it bluntly: the fact that Jim had to attend his old school is a moral failing for which we are all culpable. Each day that ineffective, unsafe schools operate is a slap in the face to our society.

Opponents to school turnarounds cite the dangers about corporate involvement in education and spin romanticized, nostalgic tales about “traditional” public schools. While I’m not suggesting nefarious intent from those people, their concerns don’t help Jim and the thousands of other students attending schools that deny them their right to a quality education. For me, it is a simple question: Would you want your own child to attend that school? If not, something needs to be changed, and quickly.

My credentials as a “liberal” have been repeatedly questioned for my support of turnarounds, but what could be more liberal than wanting the same for all kids? As I’ve written previously, pointing to poverty as the root cause of educational equity doesn’t help kids attending terrible schools right now. We need to remember that Jim and his family aren’t interested in a sociological debate about whether poverty is the main cause of educational inequity; they just want good, safe, schools–an unquestionably reasonable request. And until it is fulfilled, we should cast unproductive debates and pie-in-the-sky policy goals aside.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good in Education

In the most recent issue of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Benjamin Herold describes the broken pipeline between secondary education and college in Philadelphia. Money quote:

Of the 145 students who started 9th grade at [Benjamin Franklin HS in North Philadelphia] in fall 2005, only 17 enrolled in a four-year college, according to new National Student Clearinghouse data provided to the Notebook by the School District.

Citywide, only 25 percent of students who started 9th grade in one of Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools that year have enrolled in any postsecondary education, compared to almost 80 percent of students who started at the city’s most selective magnet high schools.

In other words, schools in Philly are deeply stratified. If you aren’t admitted to the one of the  city’s handful of magnet schools, it is unlikely that you will enroll in college, much less graduate.

This piece of data serves as even greater evidence of the crisis today in urban education. If we can say with some confidence that a 9th grader will not graduate college based purely on their school, there is something wrong with the system. As ed reformers continue to argue about next steps, I am reminded of the timeless Voltaire quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” We need to make small, incremental improvements to our schools and abandon the quixotic attempt to design a perfect reform. As adults squabble about the merits of charters and vouchers and the symbolic importance of traditional public education, students return to terrible schools, day after day. Whether you want to measure the failings of our educational system in terms of crime rate, college graduation, lifetime earnings, or test scores, we can’t forget that those numbers are composed of kids, kids that are being failed by a system by no fault of their own. Inaction is inexcusable.

Diane Ravitch Doesn’t Understand Philly

Today in EdWeek, education scholar and commentator Diane Ravitch joined the fray of alarmist outsiders lamenting the impending “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Her concern stems from the recently released “blueprint” for school reorganization in Philadelphia  which includes closing 64 schools—they will presumably either be reopened as charters or consolidated–and dividing the district into “achievement networks” led by teams of educators or nonprofit organizations. Though her EdWeek piece (and comment on it on her blog) carry a dramatic, passionate tone, she proves little more than her proficiency at the use of logical fallacy.

Ravitch considers this reorganization to amount to an “abandon[ment]” and “death” of public education in Philadelphia. Money quotes:

The death of public education in any city or district is a tragedy. Education is a public responsibility. If some choose to pay to go to non-public schools, they have the right to do so. But for the vast majority of our kids, public education is their right and our responsibility. Any who whittle away that sense of public responsibility are doing damage to our society and our kids and our future.

As we abandon public schools, we abandon any sense of public responsibility for a basic public service. That’s worse than a mistake. It’s a tragedy. What will be privatized next? Police protection? Fire protection? Clean air? Potable water?

In other words, she argues that education ought to be a public responsibility, and shirking that responsibility would be damaging to society. That is a statement with which no one in involved in the Philadelphia reorganization disagrees. How could they? This is a  classic “straw man” argument, which misrepresents an opponent’s position. (Her claim that privatization of education could result in privatization of other areas in the second passage I quoted is also a perfect use of the “slippery slope” fallacy. Actually, I am somewhat thankful–it is a great example to use when I teach critical reading of nonfiction in my classes.)

In truth, Ravitch is ignoring a basic reality: the reorganization in Philadelphia does not remove the public responsibility for education. Whether she likes it or not,  charter schools are still public schools. They are funded by tax dollars, and students do not have to pay to go there. Sure, some charter organizations receive additional funding from private donations. But is more money in the system a bad thing? All students in the city will still attend school regardless of their financial situation. The means of implementing the public responsibility for education is changing; the responsibility itself is not.

Now, Ravitch is spot-on in her argument that inadequate funding in the district is largely to blame for the dire situation in Philly. But given her prominent position in the education reform world, she needs to double-check her facts and logic before resorting to alarmism. Otherwise we might as well  just hand her a bell and a sign: